- - Monday, September 30, 2013


By Stanley Weintraub
Da Capo Press, $25.99, 288 pages

There are several reasons for students of the life of the monumental American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to buy this book, despite some of its blemishes.

It is the first effort devoted solely to the critical eight years of FDR’s life from 1912 to 1920, when he evolved from a generally dismissed lightweight dabbler in politics to a formidable national political figure. While the now-deceased historian Kenneth S. Davis dealt with the same ground in greater detail in his prize-winning, four-volume biography, this book spares the reader having to slog through a lot of the backstory of the Roosevelt clan.

Author Stanley Weintraub, at 84 and still going strong, is at the top of his writing game that now approaches its 50th anniversary. Mr. Weintraub’s output over this past half-century is impressive for both its scholarship and literary accessibility. For much of his life (which also included duties as head of Penn State’s humanities department), he secured his reputation as the leading biographer of George Bernard Shaw and his era. Lately, he has turned the same intense focus to Roosevelt with his recent study, “Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary World War II Presidential Campaign.”

There is a salutary lesson in Mr. Weintraub’s current examination of that eight-year evolution of FDR from the chrysalis of the pampered playboy pol to the invaluable government administrator and potential presidential candidate — all before he was 40. So-called great men do not always start out great, and those of us who are fascinated with the lives of historical figures must constantly remind ourselves that people do change over time. It is how they change that marks the great from the also-ran.

As Mr. Weintraub makes clear, young Franklin (he was known as “Frank” in those days) had a lot of changing to do, and he did not make the necessary sobering adjustments to his character and public persona all at once. He could be personally charming and then just infuriating to both family and political allies. He could be a hyperefficient government administrator on critical issues of national security and then dive into willfully scandalous behavior that would have landed him on the blogosphere these days.

The Roosevelt evolution began in 1910 when he won a New York state Senate seat. He ran as a Democrat largely because his father had been one, and not so he could distinguish himself from the Republican Roosevelt relatives — led by Theodore Roosevelt, from Oyster Bay. Like his GOP relations, FDR was a staunch opponent of the corrupt big-city Democratic machine organizations typified by Tammany Hall. Early in 1912, he enlisted in the presidential campaign for a long-shot Democratic candidate, the former Princeton president and novice reformer, New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson.

On the face of it, Roosevelt’s reward for his early commitment to Wilson was not much. It is true that his cousin Theodore had elevated himself from the post of assistant secretary of the Navy into the vice presidency, but not before he had made himself a Rough Rider hero of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and governor of New York. To be Wilson’s assistant Navy secretary in the tiny civilian bureaucracy that served the admiral-grandees who actually ran the senior service was pretty thin stuff. But FDR was blessed with a boss — newspaper owner Josephus Daniels — who knew little about naval matters and was intellectually lazy to boot.

The bulk of the story, then, is how FDR’s ambition and skills kicked in as he threw himself into the daunting task of moving the U.S. Navy from its dowdy coal-fired irrelevance in five years to the modern extension of America’s new world presence.

There are problems with this book, I confess, but to Mr. Weintraub’s credit, I am more inclined to the apparent lack of proper editing on the part of his publisher. Aside from some obvious errors — especially in the photo captions — which may be corrected in later printings, a good editor would have curbed the author’s enthusiasm for taking minor details of this period and then foreshadowing them into great events in the future. The fate of battleships built in 1917 at Pearl Harbor 24 years later is persiflage. Using an FDR speech in 1913 to presage Barack Obama’s jeremiads about the “99 percent and the 1 percent” is something Mr. Weintraub would not have let his Penn State student essayists get away with. A good editor should have called him on these glitches.

This is not, to be sure, the final word on FDR’s beginnings. There is a far more nuanced story to be told for some future historian who has the time and resources. There are several key elements that are touched on but glossed over.

Franklin Roosevelt was a sexual adventurer whose predations were widely known within Washington’s elite circles at the time. His acknowledged love affair with wife Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, is touched on but, erroneously, treated as having ended when it was discovered. Rather, it continued via clandestine contacts abetted by loyalist emissaries between the two and included Lucy’s visits to the White House and her presence at Warm Springs when he died. But in the meantime, Roosevelt’s appetite for affairs with other women continued unchecked even by his disability.

Left out of the narrative is the impact on FDR’s evolution from his early friendship with such key figures of the Progressive movement as Felix Frankfurter, a future Supreme Court justice; Walter Lippmann, the influential political essayist; and even Herbert Hoover, the beau ideal of Progressivism of that day.

Still, it is a good beginning for those interested in the evolution of the most influential figure of our immediate history.

James Srodes’ latest book, “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint) has just been released in paperback.

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